Saturday, November 24, 2012

A dressmaker's nightmare

When I was thirteen one of my older brothers asked me to be a bridesmaid at his wedding.  His wife to be had invited her neighbour’s sixteen year old daughter and I was to be the younger bridesmaid in place of my older sister who was too old to fit the bill, for reasons I still do not fully understand. 

My older sister was hurt to be overlooked in this way and I felt … triumphant is the wrong word.  I don’t remember wanting to get one over my older sister - four years older and we were not in the same league - besides I felt hurt for her and a little apprehensive for me. 

I come to this story this morning out of a sense of apprehension.  For weeks before the wedding I worried that I might cop a cold sore, and that my face would become an unsightly mess just as I was meant to look my best. 

On top of this I was in that in-between stage of development.  The dressmaker complained to my sister in law to be that I was a dressmaker’s nightmare.  My cup size was in between.  If she took a fitting now two months before the event she’d have to allow for the very real possibility that by the day of the wedding I’d have grown a full cup size. 

I stood in my petticoat as my sister in law to be and the dressmaker considered the possibilities.

‘Just buy her an oversized bra.’ 

Do you remember that time in your life when any mention of your body in public was mortifying?   I blushed. 

At thirteen years of age my breast development was such that my mother did not consider a bra necessary yet.  I had longed for one, not out of any bodily need but more because I had wanted to feel more grown up.  I did not want this matter discussed, however.  Mine was a secret longing.

The bridesmaid’s dresses were in a yellow satin with a rough texture in the fabric that shone.  My shoes were white.  My breasts were pointed under the hard shell of my oversized bra and as I walked up the aisle first in line of the wedding party I could see my brothers' eyes out on stalks.

I feared they might say something later at the reception, but they did not.

Apprehension is the order of the day.  I am about to take a trip to the Blue Mountains to spend a week at Varuna with the aim of immersing myself in my writing.  A small group of us will come together under the mentorship of Robin Hemley to advance our books, our projects, whatever we might have on the boil, and I am frightened, excited, and fearful of what might transpire.  

Will I seize up?  Will I write a load of crap?  Will I use my time productively? 

For those who don’t know, Varuna is a writer’s retreat in Katoomba, nestled in the beautiful Blue Mountains in New South Wales.  

I leave before six am on Monday and should arrive around one, after taking a plane to Sydney and from there a train to Katoomba. 

I tell myself not to think too much about it, just to go and while I’m there to forget about everything and everyone outside of my writing.  Can I do this?  Can I so immerse myself in what seems such an indulgence, such a longed for indulgence. 

I will not need to worry about the needs of another, except when I ring home in the evening and check that all’s well at home.  I will not need to cook or to clean.  I will not need to otherwise work in any other way than to write – a joy greater than being a bridesmaid even if I cop another cold sore.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

A dangerous precedent

I cut the photograph in half to delete the image of a man I once loved, or thought I loved all those years ago when I was young and impressionable. But to cut out his hand, the one that flops over the back of the chair behind the body of the young woman who once was me, would involve a total dissection of the photograph and so it rests today, torn down the middle. 

 Someone took the photo on New Years Eve and despite the smile on my face I was angry.  To this day I imagine I was angry with the man whose hand hangs over the back of my chair, his nails neatly clipped.  

In the photo you can just see the dark line of his jacket and the white edge of his shirt.  There was a time when I so longed to see this man that I could think of nothing else but the hour when we two would be together.  Such a man as to make my heart melt.
 I had met him on the ground floor of the book store when he called me over one day and looked at me with eyes that suggested I was more to him than just another university student working part time in the upstairs sheet music department.  

In his eyes I was special but it was a dangerous precedent   It gave him power after which as much as he could make me feel special simply by acknowledging me he could also leave me deflated like a discarded paper bag if he chose to ignore me.

The rain water pelted down from lunchtime on and we watched from the shop windows as Elizabeth Street filled with water.  Rubbish sped by as if it were motorised on streams of water that poured around the drain pipes and collected there.  With nowhere else to go the water spilled into a river that rose to door step height, floor height then up to the counters on the ground floor. 

 Six o’clock and closing time saw the senior staff busy trying to mop up the excess, once the rain had slowed and the rest of us were urged to get home as quickly and safely as we could.  I made my way back up the hill towards Spencer Street.  

I had determined I would not go straight home. I would go instead to see off my beloved, the man whose presence could set my heart racing even as I knew I did not so much matter to him as amuse him.  

He had booked a trip to Wollongong to spend the next four days with friends.  The Southern Aurora pulled into the station bound for Sydney.    
        ‘Come on board,’ he said to me.  ‘We can have a drink before the train leaves.’ 

We sat together in the long cabin decked out like a hotel bar with drinks counter at one end and chairs clustered around a series of oval tables on both sides for the length of the carriage. We sat closest to the door that led to the sleeping compartments.  Pimms and lemonade for me, beer for him.  The drink left me feeling mellow.  Undaunted by the thought that soon I would need to say goodbye and go back to my dreary life at home in a shared house with  people I did not so much care about as feel responsible for, my sister and her friend. 
The first call came through, visitors must depart now.  The train will be leaving in ten minutes.  I stayed put even through the second call.
            ‘I wish I could come, too’ I said.
            ‘Why don’t you?’
            ‘I don’t have a ticket.’
              ‘No matter,’ he said.  ‘I’ll hide you in my cabin.’ 

 The inside cabin of the Southern Aurora in this roomette designed for one was compact.  The sink folded in on itself to allow for the bunk that folded out, the toilet seat you pulled out from another cavity.  The bed which folded out also converted as a seat and my man and I shared this space the entire journey.  The rat-ta-tat of the train wheels over the tracks was soothing in my sleep even as I lay squished up against the wall of the carriage.  In the morning as we watched through the window and saw the outskirts of Sydney come into view I marvelled at my fortitude in being so bold as to steal onto a train un ticketed.  Not so my companion.  He seemed cool, as if he had done it before and would do it all over again. 

And so it transpired that I travelled in the Southern Aurora from Melbourne to Sydney in a first class sleeper with the man I loved.  I hid in the toilet when the ticket inspector knocked on the door and slipped out the train at the end of the journey as if I were an ordinary passenger and of no interest to anyone.

At Sydney’s central rail way station with its vaulted ceilings and broad arches we took a train to Wollongong where we met the friend, a man whose second name ‘Head’ matched his appearance, all head, no brains and not much of a body, but for some reason my beloved liked him and chose to spend time with him.  

This time I bought a ticket.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ring the bells

First there were white rolls at breakfast which had once been stale left overs at the local bakery.  The baker brought them in his car at the end of each week free and the nuns splashed them with water and then tossed them into the oven. 

By the time they reached our tables they were crisp on the outside and fluffy inside.  I ate mine with melted butter and honey, washed down with sweet milky tea.  Instead of sandwiches for lunch like the day girls we had a three course hot meal, dishes like steak and kidney pie, after soup, mostly pumpkin or vegetable and followed by some sweet concoction, sometimes inedible like sago or tapioca pudding.  Occasionally, the nuns served  my favourite, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce or a runny custard pudding.  

At afternoon tea, the nuns prepared hot buttered fruit buns in the same way as our breakfast rolls but this time instead of tea we drank hot chocolate, steaming mugs of hot sweet chocolate milk to take the edge off any hunger till the last meal of the day, a lighter meal, more bread, in slices and usually left stale with sardines or baked beans or cold corned beef. 

By the year’s end as I sat one day in the chapel.  Up early for Mass, good girl that I was, I found myself the only boarder in the first three rows. Behind me sat the nuns, like a flock of black birds, heads bent in prayer. And so it fell to me to ring the bells for communion.  

I had never done this before and I could not find my way into the order in which I should have rung them.  The Latin Mass offered few clues.  Before the sanctus, before the communion, three times, a fast jiggle of the bells, and if I got it wrong, would the priest stop hoisting the white host into the air and tell that girl in the front to get her bell ringing right? 

After Mass my favourite nun came to me. 
            ‘Your suspender belt is cutting into your skin.  You need a bigger dress.’ 
I smiled and took my leave.  I had not reckoned on my favourite nun’s taking note of my proportions. 

Alone in the vacant block next to the school I kicked at loose stones. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

One squashed toe

The kitchen was filled with smoke this morning and I worried someone had left a saucepan under the flame too long or forgotten to turn it off. 

No flames, no saucepan and it was clear my husband had overcooked his bacon for breakfast.  He had made an early start and was gone leaving behind the trace of his presence in the congested kitchen air.  It is not an unpleasant smell, only there’s too much of it. 

My husband has taken to making his own bacon.  He coats great slabs of belly pork in various spices, sea salt and cracked pepper and then leaves them to cure in the fridge for days.  After this he smokes the pork in the outside barbeque for hours on a low heat, so low that the pork does not cook but instead becomes infused with the smoke from wood shavings he has earlier soaked in water and placed alongside the pork in the oven.  Then the air fills with the rich offerings of slowly smoked bacon.  Again it is not unpleasant and this time it does not matter how much of it there is because the aroma washes away on the breeze. 

I trust it does not add to the world’s pollution, but who knows.  Anything that goes out into the atmosphere must surely contribute to climate change.  The human impediment.  

I feel distinctly human at the moment.  On Tuesday when I reached up to take down a box of dress up clothes from the top cupboard I inadvertently pulled out the shelf with the box.  The box I held firmly in my arms but the shelf came crashing down onto my toe, my left toe – the toe on the same foot I broke two years ago – and crushed it.  Not to the point where it needs no amputation but toes are sensitive.  This one of mine still aches, five days later, though it’s not so bad now. 

I had been looking for a belt that might fit my grandson and the dress up box filled with cast-offs from my daughters’ years at school in plays and performances and the like seemed the obvious place to go. 

In other boxes we found plastic swords, which my grandson brandished with delight. He is into pirates and knights, interspersed with superheroes.  My youngest daughter who is writing an anthropology essay on the difference between sex and gender uses his behaviour as a marker, to point out that although this boy’s parents had worked hard in his earliest years to be as gender neutral as possible, wrapping him in pink blankets if the mood took them and refusing all stereotypes, he still loves cars and trucks and trains.  He has very little interest in the stereotypical girl-type things, dolls and the likes. 

Earlier I had dragged out a box of old Barbies, the toys my daughters once loved, and he took one look at them, remarked on the fact that we had two identical Ken dolls and that all the Barbies also looked identical except for the colour of their hair, and then cast them back into the box. 

I wonder whether my response to my toe was gendered.  By which I mean, would a man or boy, or someone not of my gender react to the accident as I did.  I tried not to get hysterical but I remember calling to my daughter to get me a Panadol of the pain.  I felt I had to do something. 

She raced first to the freezer for ice which she piled on top of a tea towel to cover the wound.   She took over the care of her nephews and I sat on the couch puzzling over our next move.

My daughter had intended to work on her essay but because I had promised to take the boys to the swimming pool, and my older grandson, despite my toe, still pleaded to go, she changed her plans and came with us so that she could get into the pool with the boys while I sat at the edge and nursed my toe, clear of the water. 

At this stage I could not bear to cover my toe and although it gradually came to look like a ‘manky mess’, as my daughter described it, I could not bear to wash it or bandage it until a few hours later. I needed by then to cover it before I started work.  I could not affront people with the sight of it. 

Only my husband can bear to see what lies beneath the bandage.  It even makes me squirm, my toe, like this disowned part of me that has become a purple mess cringe-worthy in the extreme.

Why do I want to show people, those closest to me?  Is it to get some sort of sympathy or to have someone else recognise how terrible it must feel? 

I took it to the doctor the day after the accident and he took a paper clip, spread it apart and heated one end under a flame.  He used an old cigarette lighter for the purpose. 
            ‘I haven’t seen one of those in a long time,’ I said to the doctor.  ‘They’re not as effective as they used to be,’ he said.  ‘Safety regulations mean you can never get a hot enough flame’.  For his purposes that is, namely to sterilize the tip of the paper clip so that he might relieve the tension and swelling in my toe by drilling a hole in the nail. 

Even as I write this it sounds ghastly, but as the doctor said, ‘It sounds barbaric yet it’s not as bad as it seems and it won’t hurt, just a prick.’  I didn’t even feel the prick, but I smelt the burnt nail after the event, an acrid incinerator smell, nothing like my husband’s bacon, and I noticed the thumping pain subside almost immediately. 

My toe is on the mend now but it will take several weeks the doctor said before it recovers fully and I may well lose the nail. 

Is this to much information? as Jim might say.  Too much of the blood and gore variety that people hate to read about because they identify with the narrator.  I don’t know.  I only know that after the event I wondered that I could have endured it at all.

And it could have been worse.  Instead it becomes proof of my nine lives.  Like a cat, I tell myself, I have enjoyed nine lives and still have a few more to go before I run out of chances.